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Preventing Sexual Violence Starts in the Classroom

Every day, we see headline after headline about sexual harassment and assault – in our communities, in Hollywood, and in Washington, D.C. In fact, whether at work, at school, in a bar, or on the street, more than half of women in the United States say they have experienced unwanted sexual advances, according to a research poll conducted for ABC by Langer Research Associates. Further, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

In the face of these truths, it is hard to not to ask ourselves, “What can I do to stop this for my children?” “Is this problem too big to be overcome?” or even, “What role have I played in perpetuating this oppression?” These are important questions, particularly since many remain unaware of the scale at which these crimes occur or the emotional, physical, and psychological implications they have on people of all genders.

Parents can start discussing topics like consent and sexual safety with their kids from an early age.

For years, I too, have been deeply disturbed by our country’s inability to overcome its ongoing battle with sexual objectification, inequalities, and violence. But, in the last few months, I have felt a shift – I have seen important steps taken toward combatting these deeply systemic problems. Inspired by silence-breakers like Anita Hill and Tarana Burke, the #MeToo campaign has recently shined a new light on and brought long overdue attention to these pervasive issues, igniting a fire within people to take action now.

This renewed national dialogue is vital in creating social change - creating space for survivors to tell their stories, holding perpetrators accountable, and even contributing to workplace policy changes. But the truth is, these conversations only scratch the surface. Issues of sexual violence are stubbornly persistent, deeply embedded in our social fabric and tightly held in centuries-old beliefs. Transforming a culture takes generations.

This is illustrated in a recent New York Times article, How Tough is it to Change a Culture of Sexual Harassment? Ask Women at Ford”, that highlights the struggles women at two of the auto giant’s Chicago-based plants say they’ve faced for decades in stamping out sexual harassment – despite court-mandated policy changes and shifts in leadership in an attempt to increase workplace safety. The Times writes,

“They groped women, pressed against them, simulated sex acts or masturbated in front of them. Supervisors traded better assignments for sex and punished those who refused.

That was a quarter-century ago. Today, women at those plants say they have been subjected to many of the same abuses.”

And while we may be collectively disturbed by the recent onslaught of sexual misconduct allegations in our newsfeeds, we’ve failed to get ahead of it.

“Pervasive sexual harassment and misogyny are certainly not new, but we seem to be making frighteningly little progress in preventing it,” Professor Weissbourd, the faculty director of Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, remarked in an interview with the Institute of Family Studies in October 2017.

In their study of 3,000 18-25 year olds, The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment, Weissbourd and his colleagues found that misogyny is all too prevalent in youth. In fact, one young woman from California stated,

One thing that I think all girls go through at some age is the realization that their body, seemingly, is not entirely for themselves anymore...the unfortunate thing is that we all just sort of accept it as a fact of life.

What’s more, is that many youth don’t recognize gender oppression when they see it or find it problematic. For example, Weissbourd’s team found:

  • 82% of males and 76% of females either agreed or were neutral that, “Women are turned on/find it sexy when men get a little rough with them.”

  • 48% either agreed or were neutral that “society has reached a point that there is no more double standard against women.”

  • 39% either agreed or were neutral that it’s “rare to see a woman treated in an inappropriately sexualized manner on television.”

There is no silver bullet to end this epidemic. Of course, we should continue to strengthen policies that make workplaces safe for all genders, believe survivors when they come forward, train our first responders in trauma-informed care for assault survivors, and have zero tolerance policies for degrading language in schools and workplaces. But that’s still not enough. The fact is, unless we are willing to address the power, privilege and toxic masculinities that underpin our country’s institutionalized sexual assault, violence, harassment, and misogyny, our kids will be having these same conversations in another quarter-century.

A trained sex educator leads high schoolers in looking at the relationship between slang and sexuality

This means we, as adults, have to get real with youth. It means having conversations about what consent actually means in practice, including the importance of ongoing communication between partners when it comes to all things sexual. It means modeling healthy relationships so our kids have something positive to emulate. It means using inclusive, respectful language toward all genders. It means breaking down not only the definitions of sexual assault and harassment, but also identifying what to do if they ever occur. It means discussing the smallest and earliest warning signs of relationship abuse. It means calling out misogyny immediately. And, for adults, it means getting educated. And that takes work.

It is our responsibility to pro-actively engage our youth in meaningful conversations at school and at home about how to build relationships rooted in empathy, respect, and caring. Through making a deep investment in young people’s education and programs, like Health Connected’s, we can stop abuse before it starts, instead of looking back and wondering “how did this happen?” We have the unique opportunity to prevent systemic issues like sexual assault and harassment, misogyny, bullying, and homophobia/transphobia from continuing by normalizing a kinder, more ethical alternative. While there is no one solution to ending sexual violence, comprehensive sex education is catapulting us in the right direction.

If ending sexual violence is the priority we claim it to be, through education, we can realize a society in which far fewer people must ever utter the words “me too.”

For more information on supporting and talking to your child, check out the links below.

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